CW: brief discussion of rape.
Cycling several incarnations before appearing on record, Scottish singer Donovan Leitch’s “Lord of the Reedy River” is a minor classic of his career. Getting performances on a 1968 TV programme and a 1969 celebrities’ demo reel romcom before appearing on Donovan’s 1971 double LP HMS Donovan. Serene, erotic, creepy, and sensuous all at once, Donovan somehow manages to make the Greek myth of Leda and the swan, a fable in which Zeus seduces or rapes (depending on the telling; Ovid, surprisingly, removes the rape, while Yeats writes about it as one) the Aetolian princess Leda. Donovan’s telling is a strictly romantic and erotic one, rejecting the sexual violence of the tale in favor of a sensuous, mythical love affair (“she fell in love with a swan” has no business sounding as beautiful as it does, but that’s Donovan). It’s a stunning piece of work that fixates on the uncanny and eerie aspects of the tale (“he filled her with song,” “she in my boat long hours/he in his royal plumage”). The song’s sense of place is potent and inextricable from its sensuousness (“black was the night and starry,” “she threw him some flowers/in the reedy river”). Most delightfully, the song has a Shape of Water ending, with the final act of its drama being the “glide” of “two swans.” With its chilling harmonies, palpitating vocal, uncanny vocal, and genuine lyrical beauty, “Lord of the Reedy River” is a masterpiece, an unjustly forgotten landmark of late-60s-to-early-70s folk music.
Its album of origin HMS Donovan was a favorite of Kate Bush, a long-standing Donovan fan. Wavering between slating “Sat in Your Lap” with a cover of either Donovan or Captain Beefheart (the latter of which is mind-boggling to think about), Bush opted to cover the melodic Scotsman after serendipitously watching him perform on a Crystal Gayle programme. The choice was an interesting if unsurprising one — Donovan is as much a part of the British songwriting tradition Bush hails from as Ferry or Bowie or Waters. Yet the form of mystical, childlike ballad exemplified by “Lord of the Reedy River” was something of Bush’s past, an aesthetic that Bush had largely moved past by when she recorded The Kick Inside. This was an unexpected return to her musical roots.
And yet the song works as a unit of Bush’s Dreaming era. The sensuous, place-centered ethos of “Lord of the Reedy River” is the sort of thing Bush explores throughout her four albums we’ve read about. The mythical aspect of Bush’s work has never departed, nor has her tendency to explore complex subjects through a perspective of searing childlike simplicity (one of the most useful critical tools for exploring the endemic truths of myth). Simplicity isn’t inherently equivalent to reductivism — simple truths have fractal implications. Certainly “Lord of the Reedy River” is both unostentatious and unnerving. Creeping into the senses through such channels of voice and harmony is as erotic as folk songs get.
In keeping with Bush’s explorations of psychological emancipation, “Lord of the Reedy River” fits in with Bush’s recent musings on transformations and desire. Who amongst us doesn’t at some point get so horny they turn into a swan? (I’ve read your posts, Kate Bush Forums.) It’s a treatment of childhood fantasy as a realization of deep-rooted desires.
Bush niftily makes the song hers. She appears to be the only performer on the track, whose only instrumentation appears to be Bush’s Fairlight. Bush’s vocal is soft and throaty at once — she recorded it by the Townhouse’s disused swimming pool so her voice could “reflect” the water. Perhaps most crucial to the cover’s functionality is Bush’s change of pronouns from third person to first person — “she fell in love with a swan” becomes “I fell in love with a swan.” The result is Kate Bush singing about getting topped by a swan, the sort of surreal psychosexuality that appears in her later snowman-fucking song “Misty.” Nonetheless, Bush’s cover makes it feel like Leda’s story has come full circle, shaping her narrative into a love story of the sublime and the authorial presence of a woman.
The source material makes this tricky. In many tellings, “Leda and the Swan” exemplifies the predatory behavior of Zeus, the Greek pantheon’s patron deity of rape, with Zeus raping Leda. The plot varies by account (a knock-on effect of misogynistic sexual violence’s normalization in classical antiquity) and it eventually became a motif of classical eroticism in the Italian Renaissance, when the ostensible lovers were painted by da Vinci and Michelangelo. Yet Leda’s part in this myth has been sadly occluded. Greek mythmaking was populated by writers like Ovid and Aeschylus, who weren’t averse to telling stories about rape. In the myths, Leda becomes a Spartan queen, but this is occluded by her memorialization as exclusively a rape victim or a plaything of Renaissance artists and Classical playwrights and poets.
Donovan gets the ball rolling on repairing Leda’s story by jettisoning its violent misogyny. Bush takes this a step further by stressing the myth’s quintessential weirdness and providing the story with a woman to tell it. It’s one of Bush’s most idiosyncratic minor works, and an aberration in her greater career. An undervalued gem of Bush’s B-sides.
(Leitch.) Recorded May/June 1981 at Townhouse Studios, Shepherd’s Bush. Released as B-side to “Sat In Your Lap” on 21 June 1981. Personnel: Bush — vocals, Fairlight(?), production. Launay — engineer. Gray — assistant engineer. Leda and the Swan painted by Michelangelo in 1530. Screencap from If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969, dir. Mel Stuart).